“The Bible” is a new history channel documentary. It was viewed by 13.1 million people on Sunday, March 3rd. On March 1st producers, husband and wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, wrote an editoral which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, proposing that the Bible should be taught in the public schools of America.
You may be surprised to know that quite a few of us have taught Bible in the public schools. My first job out of college was teaching Bible in a public junior high school. My future husband’s pick-up line just after he met me in the office was, “What’s a nice looking woman like you doing teaching Bible?”
Indeed, I have to ask myself, should anyone be teaching a religious book in a public school? Our Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution starts with freedom of religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Where did this notion of democracy or civil rights originate? In world history class, sometime back in the Dark Ages, I was told democracy came from the Greek city states where the land owners got to vote. Leaders were elected. Greece is considered to be the birthplace of democracy. But is this the real story? Stay tuned for a different perspective.
In the summer of 1984 I was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institute. Most people know this as an art and educational center in western New York State, but it began in 1874 as a Methodist Bible conference center. On a bright Sunday morning a man who called himself a “pious Jewish atheist” was delivering the sermon for the day. Those old Methodists were, no doubt, turning over in their graves. I.F. (Izzy) Stone was speaking about the origins of democracy in the western world.
After years of fame as a liberal journalist, who received an award from the American Civil Liberties Union, Izzy Stone had begun to study Greek history with a passion. He had even memorized several long Greek poems. As Stone began to share his recently acquired wisdom, he stunned the Chautauqua audience by stating that the Greeks were not the authors of western democracy. Oh, yes, the Greek landowners, the men, got to vote, but there was no understanding in ancient Greece that “all men are created equal.” It was, Stone declared, the WASPs, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a maligned minority in modern times, who came up with civil rights.
My ears perked up. He was talking about my ancestors, people such as Nathaniel Dickinson who fled from England to gain religious freedom in 1652. The WASPiest of WASPs if ever there was!
Why would Stone, a “pious Jewish atheist,” suggest we should thank the WASPs for democracy? The audience sat stunned. I must confess I sat with a huge lopsided grin on my face wondering what this guy would say next. The WASPs around me were trying desperately to look Italian or Jewish or Native American – anything but WASP.
Stone unfolded the ancient story. Greeks who owned land in the city states believed they were the offspring of the gods. Male offspring of a property owner who had always lived in that area got to vote. Sometimes slaves were freed, but they never got to vote. Persons may have lived in the city state for several generations, but since they had moved there from elsewhere they were not granted the vote. They were forever “illegal aliens.” Women? Don’t even ask. Of course, women could not vote.
Stone progressed to even more ancient stories, in particular “god” stories. The Greeks had “created gods in their own image.” These gods were not creatures you could trust. They were bad dudes who cheated, lied, lusted, committed adultery, and murdered on a jealous whim. In other words, the Greek gods were created in the image of humans. Greek humans were the super race directly descended from sexual relations with the gods. Everyone else on earth was an inferior race. Why should they get to vote?
Izzy continued. Jews believed that humans were created in God’s image. All humans on the face of the earth were direct descendants of one original family. Females were also created in God’s image and equal to men, although different. This truth is stated in the first page of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….”
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them….” Gen. 1:26, 27
The apostle Paul made a big deal about this when he preached to the Greeks at Athens. Paul didn’t want the Greeks to miss the point.
“The God who made the world…made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth…” Acts 17:24-29
The point is clear. We were all created equal and in the image of God. Neither Greeks, nor Jews, nor WASPs are more or less in the image of God.
It is significant that White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the ones, Stone pointed out, who took the Bible seriously. Democracy began to sprout almost like an unwanted weed in Protestant Europe. This was because the Europeans began to read the Bible. It was printed by Gutenberg and distributed to be read by all. Next the Bible was translated into the language of the people. In time access to the Bible communicated a message of human equality.
So we see the roots of the concept that all men were created equal, but where did we get the notion of freedom of speech and religion? This freedom to choose originated from God and was described in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Let’s go back to that original family and the first choice: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That first choice involved absolute freedom. Of course the penalty for making the wrong choice was there, but the choice was real.
While I taught world history to sixth graders in public school, we talked of many controversial issues. Every year I asked the children, “What would you do if someone put a gun to your head, and told you they would kill you if you did not give up your religion? Some said they would change to stay alive. Then I asked them, “Would you really believe differently on the inside?”
To a child they responded, “No, of course not.” You cannot force people to believe. It is always a choice – quite literally an inalienable right.
Back to Izzy Stone’s lecture. The most astounding remark he was to utter came next. Stone said he believed that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, should be taught as history in the public schools of America. It was the foundation of our concept of civil rights and democracy. Without knowledge of the Bible a child was not educated. I sat there once again astounded to hear this journalist state such a notion. Remember, my first job at age twenty-two was to teach the Bible as history and literature in the public schools of Chattanooga, Tennessee – thus my future husband’s pick-up line.
Later as a world history teacher I taught all the major religions of the world. It was great fun. The students often asked me at recess what religion I was. They never knew, and I never told. It is an abuse of power for teachers to promote any religious belief. But I did encourage the students to speak out. It was their right.
Every year I tried to include students of various religions. One year we had a Jewish parent describe Jewish festivals. Another year a Hindu girl told about Hinduism. I had to smile when a classmate asked her if she was still Hindu. Her diplomatic reply was that since she now lived in the United States she must be a Christian. One year I asked the local Roman Catholic priest come in when we studied the Middle Ages, but he tried to convert the Protestants, so I didn’t invite him again. The funniest experience was the sixth grade atheist, a very smart girl whose atheist father must not have realized he was living in the Bible belt. She proudly declared her disbelief in any god. The kids ridiculed and preached at her. I finally got the “good little Christians” aside and said, “If you want to convert someone, making fun of them is not going to work.”
I.F. Stone put it this way, “If we teach Bible in the public schools, some will believe and some will not. That is their civil right.”